Friends of the Family is the umbrella program for six distinct programs that offer psychosocial support to the pediatric cancer patients, parents and siblings at Children's Memorial Hospital in Chicago, IL. Each program is volunteer-driven, making this unpaid staff an integral part of the hematology/oncology team, which provides services and support in dealing with childhood cancer. Finding the right volunteers is essential. All Parent to Parent program volunteers are parents of children with cancer. All Patient to Patient program volunteers were kids with cancer. The other programs are joint endeavors between these two groups and hospital staff. Careful screening, extensive training and supervision of volunteers make these programs so successful. There is no other known program in the country offering an array of volunteer psychosocial services, which span the entire family and are provided in an integrated way.
Friends of the Family began 10 years ago with one program, Parent to Parent, after the family of a former patient realized the value of peer support for parents undergoing the trauma of a cancer diagnosis. Volunteers are parents whose children had cancer. They work in inpatient and outpatient areas, mostly listening to and understanding, as no one else can, these families. Often the relationships they forge are long lasting and they celebrate remissions and discharges as well as attend funeral and wakes.
In 1990, the program expanded to include quarterly Family Workshops, conducted by volunteers and staff to enhance families' coping skills and build cohesion. In 1992, volunteers began quarterly seminars for medical residents on the importance of effective communication with families, influencing the medical community by reaching the newest physicians. In 1994, volunteers and staff developed the Parent Journal, a journal where families can record medical information, receive helpful suggestions on coping with treatment, learn medical terminology and record feelings. By 1995, Friends of the Family began a weekly parent support group, partially staffed by volunteers, that provides parents with a safe place to discuss their children, both sick and well, the disease and their experience.
The newest program under Friends of the Family is Patient to Patient, begun in 1996, which allows former adolescent cancer patients, most in their early 20s, to volunteer with current teen patients who are going through the pains of adolescence as well as the pain of their disease. There are currently 10 volunteers in this program.
The coordinator and volunteers have also advocated for and received funding for videophones, which give the children in bone marrow transplant isolation a chance to communicate with family and friends. These kids must remain in isolation with little contact with their friends and family for up to one month, so the phones act as tremendous comforting tools.
Friends of the Family has also collaborated over the past four years with several medical centers around Chicago to celebrate Cancer Survivors' Day and Walk. Volunteers and staff from all participating institutions plan the celebration, which includes thousands of participants, a night at the ballpark and a six-mile walk along the lakefront.